Islamist Party Wins Tunisia Elections

October 27, 2011 by  


By Damien Gayle

2011-10-23T143139Z_975547807_GM1E7AN1QI901_RTRMADP_3_TUNISIA-ELECTION

Manoubia Bouazizi, the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire, starting the Arab Spring.

REUTERS/Saidi

Tunisia’s main Islamist party is on its way to power after the first truly free and fair elections in the country’s history.

Early results from individual voting stations carried by local radio stations this morning put the Islamist Ennahda Party in the lead in many constituencies.

Tunisians voted yesterday to elect a constituent assembly in the first elections emerging from the so-called Arab Spring uprisings around the Middle East.

Electoral officials are still counting the votes and results are not expected until later today or tomorrow.

Boubker Bethabet, secretary general of Tunisia’s election commission, said that more than 90 per cent of the 4.1million registered voters cast their votes.

Radio Mosaique FM posted results from polling stations around the country with many showing a commanding lead for Ennahda.

Ennahdha (The Renaissance) is Tunisia’s main Islamist party. It was banned under the regime of ousted President Ben Ali.

Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, 70, returned to his homeland earlier this year after more than two decades of exile in Britain. In a bid to counter fears of a fundamentalist-style crackdown, he has vowed that if an Islamic government comes to power, it will not ban alcohol or prevent women wearing bikinis.

He has also said his party will ‘respect democracy and modernity’ adding that his movement was one that could find ‘a balance between modernity and Islam.’

Tunisia is considered one of the Arab world’s most liberal states, with high levels of female participation in public and political life. Mr Ghannouchi has accordingly promised to show tolerance towards ‘women’s equality and liberal moral attitudes.’

Tunisia’s secular traditions go back to its first president after independence from France, who called the hijab an ‘odious rag’. When Mr Ghannouchi emerged after he cast his vote on Sunday, about a dozen secularists shouted at him: ‘Go away’ and ‘You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!’

Leaders insist the party has changed since its early years. First known as Islamic Action, then the Movement of the Islamic Tendency, it supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital. The group was also said to have been behind the bombing of tourist hotels in the Eighties, but since reforming has denounced violence.

An Ennahda victory would be the first Islamist success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 election in Algeria, Tunisia’s neighbour, but the army annulled the result, provoking years of conflict.

In the more affluent Tunis suburb of al-Aouina, Zeinab Souayah, an 18-year-old language student and former protester said: ‘I’m going to grow up and think back on these days and tell my children about them.’

‘It feels great, it’s awesome,’ she added, in English.

The ballot was an extra-large piece of paper bearing the names and symbols of the parties fielding a candidate in each district.

The symbols are meant to aid the illiterate, estimated at about 25 per cent of the population in one of the most educated countries in the region.

Voters in each of the country’s 33 districts, six of which are abroad, had roughly 40 to 80 ballot choices.

It was a cacophony of options in a country effectively under one-party rule since independence from France in 1956.

The moderate Islamic movement Ennahda, or Renaissance, is expected to win the most seats in the assembly, although no one party is expected to win a majority.

An Ennahda victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.

Retired engineer Bahri Mohamed Lebid, 73, said he voted ‘for my religion,’ a sentiment common among supporters of the Ennahda movement.

He said he last tried to vote in 1974, when polling officers forced him to cast a ballot for the ruling party despite his objections.

Ennahda believes that Islam should be the reference point for the country’s system and laws and believes that democracy is the best system to maintain people’s rights.

It has also said it supports Tunisia’s liberal laws promoting women’s equality – making it much more progressive than other Islamic movements in the Middle East.

After 23 years of dictatorial rule, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s despotic president, was overthrown on January 14 by a month-long uprising.

The revolution, sparked by a fruitseller who set himself on fire in protest of police harassment, was stirred by anger over unemployment, corruption and repression.

Ben Ali’s regime was among the Middle East’s most corrupt and repressive, and his long-calm country was shocked by the self-immolations at the start of the uprising and the ensuing outbursts of pent-up anger.

As protests spread across Tunisia, the police crackdown left more than 300 dead.

The uprising inspired similar rebellions across the Arab world.

The autocratic rulers of Egypt and Libya have fallen since, but Tunisia is the first country to hold free elections as a result of the upheaval.

Egypt’s parliamentary election is set for next month.

Some voters expressed concern that despite its moderate public line, Ennahda could reverse some of Tunisia’s progressive legislation for women.

‘I am looking for someone to protect the place of women in Tunisia,’ said 34-year-old Amina Helmi, who does not wear hijab. She said she was ‘afraid’ of Ennahda and voted for the center-left PDP party, the strongest legal opposition movement under Ben Ali.

A proportional representation system will likely mean that no political party will dominate the assembly, which is expected to be divided roughly among centrist parties, leftist parties and Ennahda.

They will need to form coalitions and make compromises to create a constitution.

But many ordinary Tunisians said they felt indifferent about the elections, out of frustration that life has not improved since January’s revolution.

Tunisia’s economy and employment, part of the reason for the uprising in the first place, have only got worse since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, in part because tourists and foreign investors have stayed away.

Outside the school-turned-polling station in Hay al-Tadammon, a group of young men sat on the street, sipping tea and mocking journalists who were talking to people who had just voted.

Belhussein al-Maliki, 27, said he fought in the January uprising, which engulfed this downtrodden suburb, and lost a relative in the fighting.

‘We are jobless, we have nothing and we won’t vote,’ he said bitterly.

‘Everything is the same, the world is the way it is, and the world will stay the way it is.’

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